Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world. The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous and contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly not the point Paul is making. He’s making a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before, we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

[This is the third post in my Bible study on Mark. See the others here.]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight,'”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Mark 1:2-8

What the Bible Says

As we saw last time, Mark has just abruptly opened his Gospel with the good news that Jesus is here. Now he moves into the actual story of that arrival. This story begins, rather unexpectedly, not with Jesus Himself but with John the Baptist (or baptizer, as the NRSV renders it).

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah — Mark begins right off with an appeal to the Scriptures, which is a reasonable strategy to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If anyone is to accept Jesus as Messiah, they will have to see how He fulfills the relevant Scriptures.

A potential problem, for some, arises at this point. While Mark says “the prophet Isaiah,” the following quotation is not just from Isaiah, but actually starts from Malachi. There are also other manuscripts which simply say “the prophets,” which probably resulted from a scribe trying to fix that problem. In the end, though, this doesn’t need to bother us. Over half of the quote is from Isaiah, and since Isaiah is also the more prominent book of the two, the lack of precision is unimportant.

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — This part of the quote is from Malachi 3:1. In the original context, God was declaring judgment on Judah for her sins. In 2:17, God accuses the people of asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Then 3:1 comes as the answer. God has sent a messenger ahead to prepare His way, and according to the next part of the verse He will come suddenly to His temple. Then verse 2 makes it clear that this visit will be a day of judgment, for “who can endure the day of his coming?”

the voice […] paths straight” — This part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. The wording of this verse is very similar to Malachi 3:1, but there is an important difference in meaning. Isaiah 40 is an announcement of comfort and promise of redemption to Israel. Instead of the impending doom Malachi speaks of, this verse references impending forgiveness, despite being nearly the same.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness — Again, Mark works with sudden appearances, the kinds of abrupt changes you would expect in a vision or dream. Now John has appeared, apparently as the fulfillment of the cited texts. Based on these verses, he is a messenger preparing the way for Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem. The wilderness location is significant. Israel has always had an interesting relationship with the wilderness, having wandered for 40 years. New religious movements at this time often retreated to the wilderness, including Messianic ones. Yet John is not secluding himself with followers; he is baptizing and preaching.

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — Now we know what John is preaching. Baptism was at this time a rite that Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who wanted to fully join Judaism and Israel) would undergo, hinting that John saw sinful Israel as cut off from God’s people and they needed to essentially convert as though they were outsiders. They were called to repent and receive forgiveness. I should also point out that this would not have been understood primarily as individual. It wasn’t just about Mr. Jacob or Mrs. Martha. As I mentioned before, most the Israelites still thought of themselves as in exile, and exile was understood as the result of Israel’s sin as a nation. Therefore the call to repent and receive forgiveness would be understood as the means by which Israel might finally return from exile, and thus God’s kingdom would come.

And people […] their sins — The unrest of the time at a national level meant many people were ready to take an opportunity at seeing God’s kingdom come and receiving forgiveness in the return of Israel exile. People flocked to John, clearly enthusiastic about this prospect.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey — This well fits John’s persona as a prophet. In fact, it hints, when combined with the prophecy from before, that John is fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was expected to come before God’s kingdom came. Elijah was described similarly in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4 reveals that this kind of dress was associated with prophets. He also clearly had no trouble with purity laws.

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. — Again, the role of forerunner is apparent, which strengthens the Elijah parallel. John clearly sees himself not as the Messiah or fulfillment, but as called to prepare Israel for God’s kingdom by preaching repentance.

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” — This curious statement has always been debated. What does it mean that the one to follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit? There is no doubt that the Charismatic “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not in view. No one in John’s day had such a concept, and indeed it did not exist for hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand, more years. More likely, the word “baptize” should be understood with its original meaning of “immerse,” so that the picture is of Israel being immersed in the Spirit, which would call to mind eschatological expectations that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh when His kingdom came (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29,  Joel 2:28).

The Theology Part

So what picture does this paint for us theologically? The first thing to note is, again, the sudden appearance. Carrying on the visionary or dream-like elements, the Messiah’s forerunner shows up in the wilderness and begins preaching. His message to Israel is that they must repent and be baptized for forgiveness of sins, the return from exile. The theme is clearly the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophecies cited make this abundantly clear, as well as the allusions to John’s role as the coming Elijah.

The specific combination of prophecies used here points to God’s return to Jerusalem as both a positive and negative occurrence, both salvation and judgment. All of the Jews would be expecting this, though later we will see just how subversive and shocking the outplaying of this actually is.

Other overlooked, but in my opinion very important here, is the way the coming of Jesus is identified with the return of God Himself to His people. Remember that both Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 in their original contexts refer to prophets announcing the coming of the Lord, Yahweh. Yet in Mark “Lord” clearly refers to the subject of verse 1, Jesus the Messiah. This theme will not stop in Mark or any of the Gospels. As we go on, we find it more and more impossible to separate Jesus from God. They are one, and this realization eventually became detailed church tradition in the glorious affirmation of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

One more important theological point to notice is the relationship of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. For some verse 4 would be used with other texts to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet this does not regard the original context of the verse. John was calling for Israel to repent and essentially reconvert to their God in preparation for the return from exile and coming kingdom. This baptism and the baptism instituted by the risen and glorified Christ are not exactly the same, being on opposite sides of the Cross.

What to Do about It

So, what do we get from this? How should the announcement of John the Baptist affect us today? Two main thoughts come to mind.

  • John knew the time had come, and that God’s kingdom was about to break into the world through Jesus Christ. So he preached that message to all who would listen, baptizing them and teaching them to repent of their sins. Now Jesus has gone away, but will return, and we know that He could be back any time. We must therefore follow John’s example, preaching the Gospel of Jesus to all who will listen, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded. Basically, the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20.
  • John also was constantly clear to make himself nothing and Christ the focus. We really ought to be doing the same way. So much of our approach as Christians tends to draw attention to the preachers, the speakers, the bloggers, and even us as individuals with our testimonies. Or in church, we may find ourselves trying to get the word out about Our Church, or its programs, music, or relevance. Our worship services may seem more like concerts about the band and lights than about the God who revealed Himself as Jesus Christ. But all of this would be wrong. Our energy should go altogether towards making Jesus the object of focus, desire, and proclamation. If our message is anything but Jesus, we are in trouble.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

“Now none of this matters if you don’t already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” the preacher says with a shift of tone. “Without Him, you can’t live an abundant life. So here’s what I want you to do. With eye head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus Christ into your heart tonight and be saved from your sins, please raise your hands. No one looking around; it’s just me. It’s okay if you’re shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…”

Ever heard anything like this? I’m quite sure that you have. This is, in a way, the climax of most special Christian events. After music and shenanigans and finally a sermon, the preacher seeks for people who want to accept Jesus. Of course, sometimes making such a public statement is a bit embarrassing. Who wants to admit they need Jesus tonight? So, in the interest of making sure people aren’t scare off at the invitation of the Gospel, it is only natural that we would ask everyone to close their eyes and give potential converts their privacy to make this personal decision of faith. Right?

I think this is dangerous, actually. Despite the good intentions, I am confident that this method of encouraging people to convert actually has very harmful side effects. The main problem is the creation of false believers. In fact, this method of invitation does away with the very call of the Jesus in the Gospel in favor of a seeker-sensitive, pandering call. Where the Gospel demands self-sacrifice, asking everyone to close their eyes for potential believers protects them from any need to sacrifice at moment one.

See, the true conversion which results from genuine encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and a yielding of the soul to His grace should never take timid form. The major verse about becoming a believer, Romans 10:9, says this: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But where is the confession when the new believer is told he can come in secret, with no one else watching? Likewise, in Mark 8:38 Jesus promises this: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are lots of verses with this same theme. If you would come to Christ, you are not given the option of doing it covertly.

altar-call-1

This requirement should be no shock, anyway. How can someone who is actually coming to know the grace of Jesus refuse to make it known that they love Him? All such refusals are sinful. When we pander to them, we are saying, “It’s okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.” The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you’re too proud to admit you’re still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you’re already saved and you’re scared to show them otherwise. Perhaps you simply fear what people will think about you if you become a follower of Jesus. But to all this, the Scripture says that “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.”

So what should we do? When we open the invitation, we must make it clear that the call to follow Jesus is not easy, and involves self-denial all the way through. Instead of “everyone will close their eyes for you,” we should tell them, “If you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.” But what if this means fewer people raise their hands? What if less people decide to accept Jesus because of this? Then I daresay we have lost nothing. For if someone is clinging so much to their pride that they won’t even sacrifice an initial confession of faith, then surely that person is not actually being led by the Spirit of God to salvation! If the Spirit is working in them at all, they must be resisting that work. Making it easy will only encourage people to think they are saved, to think they’ve been secured and converted and will make it to the resurrection, even when they have no faith beyond mental facts. This is what Jesus showed us in His ministry. He did not provide an easy call, but time after time said controversial and scary things, sometimes apparently trying to get rid of anyone not serious about following Him.

Honestly, I think part of the problem may lie in the pride of people performing such events. Not all are like this, but there are many who love the numbers more than the fruit, even without realizing it. The more tally marks they can make for people who raised their hands to accept Jesus, the more impressive their events will seem. Easy invitations make for large numbers of “salvations” which in turn bring attention to the ministry doing these things. But we must be willing to sacrifice even the image of our works for God if we wish to do right in leading people to the truth.

The real danger here, by the way, is not only adding to our lists more saved people than there really are, but creating people who believe they are secure and saved when they are still in their sins, never more to worry about their spiritual state because of one misleading event.  Their chance at salvation in the future may be seriously hindered because they think they have already found the life in Jesus, even though they only accepted an easy and impotent form of the Gospel. It is like a cancer patient who dies before his time, all because an incompetent doctor told him that he was cured when he really wasn’t, so he stopped seeking treatment. May God never let this happen!

So what do I propose, again? Let’s tell people the truth: you must die to yourself if you wish to follow Christ. In the simplest and first way, just don’t pander to their self-consciousness by giving them a moment of secrecy to make their “confession.” Make them confess Christ publicly or not at all. This the example of Jesus. In fact, if I were to have it my way, I would yank open a baptismal at the invitation and tell people, “Sacrifice your pride and your dry clothes if you truly believe. Confess Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized in the name of the Jesus for your forgiveness!” This kind of radical call will not only keep people from falsely and shallowly converting to their soul’s detriment, but may even embolden and inspire those who the Spirit is working in, giving them a concrete way to express their new faith. In this way, we together with our new brothers and sisters can honor Christ as those who need not be ashamed.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved